“What do you do when the magic runs out?”
In a fantasy world of magic and monsters, The Last Smile in Sunder City is a story of one man’s attempt to do some good as a human in a world without magic, and how his own journey is a reminder of the guilt he carries regarding the way magic left the world. Meet Fetch Phillips, a man for hire, who is as sour, dark, and grim as they come. He fills the role of our brooding protagonist, though he would be the first to say he’s no hero.
Luke Arnold introduces the reader to his world where magic used to exist, but has since left in a tale of fantasy noir that takes many of the aspects of classical fantasy and breathes new life into it. The story begins when Fetch is hired to track down Edmund Rye, a missing vampire. Through the eyes of our dour investigator, we learn about the city of Sunder as well as the rest of the world. We are shown how the world is through Fetch’s experiences and perceptions of Sunder, but we also catch glimpses of how the world was through flashbacks and pieces of his backstory. Beyond the mystery of the vanished vampire, the reader begins to uncover why and how the world lost its magic, piecing together the crumbs dropped by Fetch. The main character knows full well how the events played out, but the reader is kept in the dark, with only pieces uncovered as the story progresses. The details of the Coda, the event when magic left the world, are almost as significant to the narrative as Fetch’s own journey to seek out his quarry and uncover the truth about the disappearance of Edmund Rye.
I picked up this novel for two reasons. It falls within the periphery of my typical genre of choice (science fiction/fantasy), and while I was intrigued by the concept of a dark fantasy noir novel, a mystery and detective tale of sorts set within a world where magic reigned (past tense) supreme would be something completely new for me as a reader. Magic changes everything, so a world in which magic has disappeared would be entirely new and unique, which adds another layer of intrigue and originality to a genre that I have found thoroughly engaging. Beyond the style and genre of the novel, knowing that Luke Arnold was the author was a big selling point for me. I loved his portrayal of Long John Silver on Black Sails, and through that found his work as a writer as he shared updates on his first novel on social media. The personal touch of sharing his work on writing and storytelling across the years was touching, that even though his writing was put on hiatus while his work as an actor progressed, he was able to return to it and persevere in order to get it published.
Fetch Phillips’ character is by far the best part of the book, he is the unexpected weight of gravity and fills the perfect role as the lead for the story. He is a character that carries a great burden, borne partially from a hell of his own making. He is a combination of an investigator and man-for-hire, while carrying the influences from his time as a soldier, a criminal, and an outcast. Fetch certainly doesn’t lack for demons, nor does he seem like the type to seek to either exorcise or reconcile them. At times, it almost feels like he welcomes his demons, as though they are somehow a part of the penance he believes he deserves. It’s fitting then, that his reason for carrying on in an attempt to “do some good” first came from another, from someone so important to his story that their hope for him outweighs his shame. When we first meet Fetch, he is sarcasm, cynicism, and loneliness all rolled into one, held together by the numbness of his Clayfields and liquor to the point where it’s hard to feel sorry for him. Yet the more the author explores his backstory, intertwining it with the narrative of The Last Smile in Sunder City, the more humanized (ironically, considering the circumstances of the fantasy world he lives in) the man becomes. By the end, I found myself not only empathizing with him, but mourning his losses and hoping for the chance of personal redemption and happiness.
After finishing The Last Smile in Sunder City, I’m thrilled that the second installment, Dead Man in a Ditch, is already published and the third has been sent to the publisher. It is a book that gives the reader a sobering look at a world so different from ours, yet at the same time disturbingly similar, through the lens of fantasy noir. In Sunder City, we see a recognizable world that is dark and dirty and cruel if we choose to focus on it and allow our cynicism to dominate our perspective. We find that the truth of the story, the truth of the title, is so much more heartbreaking that I could have ever imagined. And yet, despite it all, the book offers a reminder of beauty, that the memory of what was might be all the hope we need in order for it to come again, that the sun might break through and shine down upon Sunder City once more.
The Last Smile in Sunder City is written by Luke Arnold, and is published by Orbit Books.
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